We are at the station waiting for a train. This is unusual for us; usually we're the unfortunate stragglers you see running as the doors shut, pounding the windows as the train pulls away. I hate running for trains. It upsets me, and I don't know why it upsets me, and that upsets me even more. It's not just the risk of missing the train; it's the humiliation of being seen to have planned the day so poorly, the loss of dignity inherent in a frantic sprint with two heavy bags and a pair of impractical shoes.
Once, we missed the last train back from London on a Monday night. I blamed the Man, who had wandered off at a crucial moment. I was furious; I shouted, I stormed off. Outside Paddington I threw a bag of chips at him and a group of construction workers in high-vis jackets stopped to stare. Here, I shouted. Have your fucking fatty food. And we walked on opposite sides of the street for awhile, even though neither of us really knew where we were going.
Eventually, somewhere near Marble Arch, we made up and got a bus back. And at around four o'clock in the morning, just as we were pulling into St. Clements, facing the long walk down the Cowley Road, I forgave us both for missing the train, but only grudgingly.
And now we are at the station waiting - waiting! - for a train. What a luxury. To lean against a pillar on a cramped platform, to see the breath of a hundred commuters on the last desperate leg of their Friday night journey home on the October air.
I find somewhere to perch - the cold edge of a bench, my handbag on my knees. The Man reads his book beside me. I'm a bit teary.
I always get this way if I'm allowed a moment on the platform to breathe. There's so much possibility in the air! Each announcement signifies an arrival, or a departure, or a delay. Some palpable stage of a journey. Every person here invites interpretation. Where are you headed? Where did you come from? Even the bland commuters in their bland grey suits become interesting, because they are not just worker-bees in the hive anymore. They are in transit. They are on their way to families or parties, or travelling a great distance after a long meeting, or going home to have a bath and an early night or to shoot up some heroin. The drab grey suit could in fact be just be a clever disguise. Maybe some of them are international spies, or thieves running from the cops; maybe the woman resting her head against a pillar has just been fired from her job, maybe the man with the cup of coffee has just been promoted, perhaps the two colleagues standing close but not speaking have just realised, just today, that they're in love with each other.
But the point is: they could be going anywhere. And so could I.
Unlike at an airport, this sense of possibility is not sullied by logistics. There are no booked-months-in-advance-tickets, passports, forbidden items, security checkpoints, layovers; there's no jetlag or recycled air. You really could, quite impulsively, get on any train that pulls up, just because you like the sound of one of the towns the line runs through. Moreton-in-Marsh. Penzance. Why not.
I am often tempted, in fact, to take an unplanned evening journey to Penzance. Perhaps its proximity to Land's End gives it an exotic air. You may only be, in geographical terms, going to Cornwall, but also you are going to the place where the land ends and something else (a possibility, perhaps) begins. It's all in a name, of course, but the surge of emotion I feel at the station is directly related to this sense that without warning you could find yourself en route to somewhere else.
I know it doesn't work this way. A change in location does not necessarily correlate to a change in mindset. Alain de Botton writes about this in The Art of Travel, when he realises: "how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what traveled through my mind."
But a part of me likes to think that perhaps, if you plan nothing, if you go to the station intending to do something quite banal, and then, at the last moment, you get instead on a train to Newcastle or Edinburgh, you can outrun whatever state of mind you're in. It might catch up eventually, but for a blissful hour (even a day, depending on how cunning you've managed to be, how thoroughly you've managed to fool your own self), you really can equate a different location with a different way of thinking.
But then I think: it's nothing to do with the actual location. It's the journey itself, the protracted hours in a cramped space, the shifting landscape outside. I don't have any interest in actually finding myself in Moreton-in-Marsh or Penzance or Newcastle or Edinburgh; only an interest in going there.
"Place is security, space is freedom," writes Yi-Fu Tuan in Space and Place. "We are attached to the one and long for the other."
So the freedom, perhaps, is in the journey, in the spaces in between. And the security is that as soon as we're in a place again, we're ourselves again, also.